Leading article: The intelligence services have grown too powerful

Their role in the political processes of this country has been deeply questionable

Sir John Sawers became the first serving head of MI6 to make a public speech last month. The intelligence chief used the platform to assert that his agents have nothing whatsoever to do with the "illegal and abhorrent" practice of torture. Sir John was widely praised for drawing a clear ethical line.

But yesterday sixteen individuals, who claim to have suffered torture abroad in which UK intelligence forces were complicit, were awarded compensation by the Government. This raises an awkward question. If the claims of these individuals had no truth to them, as Sir John implies, why have they been compensated? The Government has stressed that the payouts are not an admission of culpability. But Sir John's assurances on torture suddenly seem considerably less solid.

The welcome news is that with the civil action brought by these individuals now settled, the judicial inquiry into the behaviour of the British intelligence services promised by the Prime Minister in July moves a step closer. That inquiry, to be chaired by Sir Peter Gibson, must wait upon the results of a separate police investigation into the individuals' complaints of abuse. But, either way, we seem to be moving closer to a reckoning on this subject.

Sir Peter's inquiry needs to examine the cases of these sixteen individuals closely. And there must be scope for prosecuting any intelligence officers who are discovered to have been complicit in torture. Proclamations from intelligence chiefs about the abhorrence of torture are no use if those who engage in it do not face criminal sanctions. The inquiry must also look into British involvement in "rendering" terror suspects across national jurisdictions for imprisonment or questioning. This practice opens the door to torture. It is much easier to abuse someone's human rights when no one knows where they are.

But there is a case for a wider examination of the behaviour of the intelligence services by Sir Peter too. In recent years their role, not just in the so-called "war on terror", but in the political processes of this country, has been deeply questionable. It has been suggested that compensation was agreed for these former terror suspects, in part, because of fierce resistance from the intelligence services to the prospect of agents being called to give evidence in open court. This is dangerous. It is intolerable that the process of law can be interfered with by the intelligence services.

This reflects a broader tension between the intelligence services and the judiciary. Yesterday's settlement follows a titanic Whitehall battle earlier this year over the courts' publication of evidence showing that MI6 knew that one of the individuals in question, Binyam Mohamed, had been tortured in Morocco.

There is a questionable relationship between the intelligence services and elected politicians too. The previous Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, under advice from the intelligence services, led an unsuccessful attempt to block the courts' release of evidence relating to Mr Mohamed's mistreatment. Mr Miliband argued that the information would harm national security and damage our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States. Yet when the evidence was made public by the Court of Appeal, it was immediately clear that it contained nothing that justified Mr Miliband's attempt at suppression. This setback has been casually brushed off by the intelligence services. They are now lobbying the present administration to retain control orders for terror suspects, despite a Coalition pledge to review their use.

This all adds up to a malign pattern of behaviour. The intelligence services have grown over-mighty. They do a valuable and often dangerous job in safeguarding the public. But they need to be subject to democratic authority and judicial oversight. In short, they need to learn their proper place.